Dalton Johnson eats vegetables only if they are raw. He won’t touch mustard, mayonnaise, and other bottled sauces. Deli meats and American cheese are avoided like a plague.
The 18-year-old keeps this routine not because he’s observing a trending diet, but because he has autism. This gives his mother, Susan Brassard, a caterer and culinary instructor, a tougher cooking job at home than at work.
Because Johnson doesn’t like processed food in general—SpaghettiOs and Macaroni and Cheese that every American kid is supposed to be mad about only drive him mad—Brassard makes his food from scratch. Corned beef, grilled chicken, and his favorite chop suey fly off their home kitchen on a regular basis.
Although, Brassard cheats a little when she’s pressed for time. She adds self-pureed vegetables to store-bought spaghetti sauce to disguise it as homemade. “He doesn’t know,” she said triumphantly.
Autism is a group of complex developmental brain disorder that affects social skills and behaviors. One in 88 children in the United States is on the autism spectrum today, says the advocacy group Autism Speaks. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is one of the common brain disorders autism children have and the cause for their avoidance of certain foods. People with SPD process the five senses abnormally, so they can be hypersensitive to food that’s too cold, hot or rough, or they are so indifferent to sensations that they constantly touch, sniff or chew for opportunities to feel something, according to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation website.
Brassard noticed Johnson was different when he only started walking at 18-month-old, six months behind most babies. His eating idiosyncrasies showed as soon as she started him on solid food. “He only liked sweet and neutral flavor food. Nothing too salty, sour, bitter,” said Brassard. When her son was older she tried to make him eat everything on his plate but “he would sit there for hours just so he could win.” Over the years, Brassard learned to remember his likes, but also found ways to incorporate his dislikes but that were good for him.
When we met Brassard and Johnson for this interview, the latter was curled up at the corner of a seat, looking sulky and eager to go home. “New places are tough,” said Brassard. We met at T-Anthony’s on Commonwealth Avenue, a pizzeria that is adorned with sports memorabilia from ceiling to floor. Because Johnson is a big sports fan, Brassard had picked this place to reduce his anxiety about being somewhere new.
Friends describe Brassard as a “tough” and “strong-willed” person who would go out of her way to make sure her son doesn’t feel ostracized. Brain-based disorder like autism is life long, but autistic children can learn to expand their diet through feeding therapy. Instead of seeking such help, the 39-year-old relied on the websites of various advocacy groups for advice, followed by many trials and errors, to feed her son a varied, nutritious diet. “She did not want him treated differently than any normal kid if she could do it herself. She did it that way so he could feel normal,” explained Jessica Lashua in a phone interview. Lashua has known Brassard for 35 years since they were kindergarten kids.
At the pizzeria, Brassard, who has long red hair and deep-set eyes, looked tensed but calm. She stood right by her son and muttered words of comfort. Lashua said that in all the years she had been out with Brassard and Johnson, the boy had never created a scene in public, because Brassard “handled him great.” “We went out together, we’ve been to Disney. Whenever he’s acting up she would pull him aside, give him time to regroup on his own, and then he’ll come back fine,” said Lashua.
Within a couple of minutes, Brassard managed to persuade Johnson to order himself a large cheese pizza—one of his favorite foods and the few store-bought things he’s willing to eat. Brassard later revealed that she had promised to drop by the video game store on their way home in exchange for his cooperation. In the past she had successfully bribed him into trying new foods with cookies and desserts. Upon hearing his mother’s remark, Johnson rebutted, “There are some bribes I don’t take.”
It didn’t take the teenager too long to warm up and join in our conversation, although he did so in a slow, sluggish manner. He echoed, “I usually would” when Brassard said he’s picky, and “Yeah I usually don’t” when she said he doesn’t like spicy food. His tendency to say “usually” befits his penchant for routines. During the meal, he consistently picked up two slices of pizza at a time, tore them apart, and laid them on his plate with the corners of both slices aligned. He waited a few moments for the pizza to cool—he waited even when the last few pieces had turned cold—before he finally ate the first piece.
Johnson’s eating challenges are not the worst seen among people with autism, who may eat food of only certain, if not one color, or insist that their food cannot touch one another on a plate. Many have starved themselves when their requests aren’t met. “We see children every day who have very severe nutritional deficits, as well as significant disruptions in their lives and family’s lives because they do not have the skills to eat normally,” said Dr Kay Toomey, clinical director at Star Center, a research and treatment center for children with sensory processing and feeding disorders.
Johnson has neither of those demands. His taboo is highly processed, salty food, which Brassard was noticeably proud to inform. “He’s the only kid that won’t eat McDonald’s burger that I know,” she said. Not understanding that his mother was actually glad about this fact, Johnson jumped in, “But I can eat McDonald’s nuggets and fries.” Brassard, wishing that her son hadn’t said anything, quickly explained that Johnson eats nuggets only if his basketball game ends late and he won’t be able to get home until 10 o’clock at night.
It is not all the time that Brassard is glad Johnson eats the way he does. When her ex-husband was around, it used to stress her out whenever her son took almost two hours to finish his food. “His father would scream at him, ‘Come on. Eat. Go. Now.’ I have to step in and like ‘Just leave him alone. He’s fine’,” said Brassard. “Because he’ll eat. But it just takes him a while.” Johnson, who heard his mother, leaned his head on her shoulder and sweetly said, “And I always appreciate that.
Brassard and her ex-husband divorced four years ago. Ever since the teenager and his father saw less of each other, they got along better, and the older Johnson would call every night to talk with his son. Brassard on the other hand has to work harder to pay for the house she and Johnson now live. She teaches cooking five days a week, and also runs her own catering business. As if there isn’t enough on her plate, on Tuesday nights she goes to class at Boston University, where she is completing a master degree in food studies.
Thanks to her culinary background, Brassard has a few tricks up her sleeves to get Johnson to eat foods he didn’t like. She cut apple into little swans, and turned carrots into flowers in bloom. Johnson was sold, but then demanded the same effort on her part even after he had gotten used to eating these foods. “When I gave him just an apple he’ll like, ‘What? No swan? Where’s the bird?’” she said and let out a laughter.
Johnson has learned to eat foods that he used to push around on his plate, but Brassard still has a list of things she wish he’d eat, such as fish. Apart from their occasional tiff at the dining table, Brassard said Johnson had been manageable, given that most teenagers of his age would have given their parents a lot of grey hair. “He’s a good kid. I can’t complain,” said Brassard.
Johnson, who was speaking to his dad on the phone but heard what she said, turned around to look at her and nodded his head.
*Written for Sheryl Julian’s food writing class at Boston University, where I am pursuing a MLA in Gastronomy.